The “Perfect” Christian

“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

 

Perfectionism is the preferred disease of the twenty-first century and it’s killing us.  Ever said or heard one of these?

“I want my wedding day to be perfect.”

“This proposal has to be perfect – dot every “i” and cross every “t.”

“Get this mess cleaned up! Our guests will be here in an hour and this place has to be perfect.”

“I stayed up all night to work on my paper – it has to be perfect if I’m going to get an “A” in this class.” (That would be me.)

Or maybe this one sounds most familiar to you:

“Why did I do that/say that/think that?  I’m a Christian – I’m supposed to be perfect!”

I thought you would recognize the last one – I know I’ve heard it in my own head countless times.  And we have the mandate of Jesus in our key verse to back up that relentless voice.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) “Be perfect – be perfect – be perfect.”   Yet we know that only One was perfect – the speaker Himself.  Does that mean He was setting up an unrealistic standard for us?  Not exactly.  When Jesus used the word “perfect” He was not saying be flawless – He was speaking of maturity – the word (in Greek) teleioo and its root telos mean “to reach a goal, to finish or complete.”   Jesus was saying we need to continually strive for maturity as the goal of our faith.

What’s interesting is that while the Bible uses the word “perfect” just forty-two times,  the word “good” appears more than six hundred times.[1]  Like in the creation account when, after completing each day’s creative work, God examined what He had done and “saw that it was good.”  In the original Hebrew this means that God found His work “pleasing, favorable and satisfactory.”  Think about it – if God, at the zenith of His creative work, was content with “good” shouldn’t “good” be good enough for us?

There’s more:  He promised a good land to the Israelites when they escaped Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3:8), Jeremiah told the people to “ask where the good way is and walk in it” (6:16).  Jesus said the Father gives “good gifts” (Matthew 7:11), He proclaimed the soil with the greatest harvest good ((Luke 8:8) and Paul tells us to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21) – not perfection.[2]  Even the Gospel that saves us is called “the Good News” (Acts 5:42).  Why then, are we trying so hard to be perfect?

God didn’t saddle us with this obsession for perfection – it was the enemy who planted that impossible seed.  But we have watered and nurtured it until it has become a weed of gigantic proportions and, as weeds so often do, it has choked the life out of us and the “good works” we were created to do (Ephesians 2:10).  It’s his way of keeping you distracted, dissatisfied, frustrated – and fruitless.  Perfectionism will drive us to the point of exhaustion as we push ourselves to reach for an unreachable standard.  Or, on the flip side, it will leave us in a state of paralysis, fearful of even attempting anything because we know we’ll never measure up.  I’ve been both – and it’s no way to live.  You and I will never pull off perfection this side of heaven.  And that’s okay.

My friend, only God is perfect and making you perfect is His work alone, through the blood of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.  But you won’t see the perfectly finished product until you stand before Him in heaven.  So hang all your perfectionist tendencies on Him and be free from that burden you were never meant to carry.  Being good is good enough.

Holy Father, You didn’t ask me to measure up to some perfect standard, but it’s what often demand of myself.  Please help me to rest in the knowledge that good is good enough for You.  Amen.

[1] I am using the NIV – New International Version, other translations may have a different word count.

[2] All Scripture emphases were added by me.

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Secret Faith

peekaboo

“But Daniel resolved not to defile himself  . . .” Daniel 1:8

He was part of a group of athletes from out of town.  He and his teammates were seated across the pizza parlor and it was obvious they had been drinking for a while.  Their conversation had been punctuated with profanity and sexual comments, and this young man had been a full participant.  He hoisted his beer above his head and toasted their victory with a few choice expletives.  With his arm raised high, I could see the WWJD bracelet he wore.  It was faded and dirty, but I recognized it right away.

I shook my head as we stood to leave, just as the young man walked to the restroom.  As my husband paid our bill, he walked out and I commented, “You guys must have had a great day today, you’re doing a lot of celebrating.”

“Yeah, we beat everyone today – we’re the CHAMPS!”

“May I ask you a question?” I queried.  He nodded his assent.  “What’s that bracelet you’re wearing all about?”  He glanced down and his wrist and quickly pulled his shirt sleeve down over the bracelet.

“Awe, it’s just something I got at church a while back.  My mom likes for me to wear it.”

“What does it mean?”

“It says WWDJ I think.  It just means . . . well I guess it means I’m a Christian.”

“Really?  Wow, that’s great! I didn’t know Christians could get drunk and cuss like that!  I guess it’s no big deal anymore is it?”

He shifted his weight back and forth on his feet.  “Hey, I’m still a Christian in my heart, isn’t that where it matters?”

“I don’t know.  Is it?”

In contrast to the young man in the pizza parlor, consider Daniel and his friends.  They were part of the exile to Babylon and had been taken with a group of elite young men to be indoctrinated into the culture of their captors.  They were given “royal food and wine” (Daniel 1:8), food which was forbidden for a Jew.  They asked to be excluded from the meal plan in favor of foods that would not compromise their faith.

Now you might ask, what harm would there be in eating and drinking the provided food as long as they remained true to their faith in their hearts?  As the young athlete said, “Isn’t that where it matters?” Couldn’t they set aside their convictions since they were captives, just go along with the others who had no such qualms?  While they chowed down they could tell God, “This doesn’t change who I am. You know I’m still a Jew at heart.”

Or when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were ordered to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, what harm would there have been to go along on the outside, as long as they still claimed their Jewish status in their hearts?[1]  Maybe Daniel could have outwardly pretended to pray to the King, but kept his heart for God?  It sure would have kept him out of the lion’s den.[2]

Jesus gives us the answer: “By their fruit you will recognize them,” (Matthew 7:16).  Fruit in Scripture is evidence of what is inside.  If a tree has the sap of a peach, it’s not going to produce a pear.  Likewise if we are truly Christians in our hearts, we will not exhibit ungodly behavior.  That’s not to say that Christians don’t occasionally stumble in their walk.  But they feel the sting of conviction and repent in sorrow for their failing.  A Christian cannot be comfortable living like the world.  I would even go so far as to say, it you can live like the world while claiming to be a Christian, you might want to re-examine your relationship with Christ.

Secret faith – faith that only exists in your heart but not in your words and actions – is a contradiction in terms.  Genuine inward faith has an outward expression.  It can’t be kept hidden away or tucked up under a shirt sleeve when it’s not convenient or popular to be a Christian.  Faith has to be lived out loud.  I don’t mean standing on a street corner with a Bible and a sign, but rather standing apart from the culture and the influences of the world.  I mean not participating in ungodly behavior.  I mean saying “No” when you are enticed to compromise your faith.  I mean making choices that may seem odd to others, but that reflect Christ in your heart.

Had Daniel and his friends compromised with the food issue, it would have been easier to give in with the statue or prayer.  They would have blended in to the culture and had no influence for the Lord.  They certainly would not have encouraged us with their example of uncompromising faith.  Likewise, the stand you take today in small things will determine the stand you take tomorrow with larger issues.

In other words, your outward faith matters.  It really, really matters.

[1] Daniel 3

[2] Daniel 6

Am I a Child of God?

Cross-and-BIble2“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

In a recent devotional on Matthew 25, I presented Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins, where the Lord’s message is clear: there is an eternal difference between those who know about Me and those who know Me.    It is vitally important that we know that difference for our own lives.  Thankfully the Bible gives us a very clear-cut way to examine ourselves and know the truth.  I encourage you to grab your Bible and follow along as we read in 1 John (almost at the end of the Bible).

The book of 1 John was written by one of Jesus’ disciples, the same John who wrote the gospel of John and the book of Revelation.  1 John is part of three letters written to the church in Ephesus, which was under attack by false teachers.  A group of philosophers, known as Gnostics had infiltrated the church, claiming a “higher, secret truth” that set them apart from the common Christian.  They deemed themselves above the teachings of the Scriptures and the Church with a superior holiness that excused their sinful behaviors, yet they still called themselves “Christians”.  (Hmmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)  So the old apostle takes pen in hand and says, there is only one God, only one truth, and this is how you can know where you stand.  Ready? Let’s dig in!

John says that those who belong to God “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7) “as Jesus did” (2:6).  The child of God choses to live in the light, where their deeds are visible.  By contrast, those who do not belong to God “walk in the darkness” (1:6, 11) where their deeds are hidden, they think, from God and men.  The child of God “does not love the world” (2:15), meaning the twisted and evil value system of the world.  But those who do not belong to God “love the world” (2:15).  Their hearts are drawn to what the world values: sex, power, money, deception . . .

The heart of the child of God “is at peace with God” (3:21) because he “listens to God” (4:6). He “obeys [Jesus’] commands” (2:3), “does what is right” (2:29; 3:10), and “does not continue to live in sin” (3:16).  When he does falter, which is the exception rather than the rule (2:1), he is quick to “confess [his] sins” (1:9) and be forgiven and purified.  The heart of the one who does not belong to God “condemns him before God” (3:21) because he listens to the world.  He “does not do what is right” (3:10) and “does not obey [Jesus’] commands” (2:4).  He “continues to [live in] sin” (3:6, 10) and then “denies his sin” (1:8).  Those who do not belong to God have convinced themselves that their actions are not sinful because they “speak the world’s viewpoint” and “the world listens to them” (4:5-6).  Just let that statement sink in for a minute.

Those who belong to God enjoy “fellowship with one another” (1:7), and “love their brother/sister [in Christ]” (2:10 and multiple verses). They love the company of believers, love to gather with the church, and love one another sacrificially (3:16-19) “in action and truth” (3:18).  The one who does not belong to God hates those who are in Christ (2:9 and multiple verses); they “do not love” (3:14, 4:8), and certainly do not love sacrificially.  “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him” (3:17)?

Those who belong to God “believe that Jesus is the Christ . . . the Son of God” (2:20-23; 5:5), because they “know the truth” (2:20).  They “love the Father” (5:1-2) and “do not fear punishment” (4:18) because they have “Christ’s Spirit within them” (3:24).  Those who do not belong to God are “liars” who “deny that Jesus is the Christ . . . the Son of God” (2:22-23; 5:10) because they “do not know the truth” (2:20).  They “do not love the Father” (5:1) and “fear God’s punishment” (4:18) because they do not have Christ’s Spirit (3:24).

One of the most telling and public ways of discerning the difference in God’s people and those with a pseudo-faith is how they respond to persecution.  In John’s day the claim of Christianity was often a death sentence.  Many who enjoyed the church’s benefits, when pressed with the decision to deny Christ or die, chose to “turn away” (2:19) rather than suffer for the name of Jesus.  Those who stood fast in their love and devotion to Christ did so at the risk of severe punishment and death.  In other parts of the world today, Christians are being murdered for their faith.  In the West, the risks are more subtle—for now—but it is clear that the tide is quickly turning and those who love Jesus will be faced with greater oppression.  John says that those who belong to God will remain faithful to their confession of Jesus as their Lord (2:21). The time is coming—soon—when our true relationship with God will be a public, and possibly deadly matter.  The evidence of the true child of God shows up in our conduct, our love, and our willingness to stand firm and persevere when being a Christian isn’t popular anymore.

As you come to the end of this devotional, there are two ways to consider this message.  You are either assured of your standing as a child of God, or you are convicted by what is true of your life and beliefs.  I pray you do not walk away without settling the matter.  Beloved, how is it with you and God today?

Holy Father, we stand before You in the light of Your Word. The truth is clear and we cannot deny it.  Help us to be honest in our answers.  Help us to open our hearts to You.  Amen.

Why I am a Christian

broken chains“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” 1 Timothy 1:15

Several years ago a Sunday School teacher said: “The only reason I’m a Christian is because Jesus offered me a better deal.  If someone had offered something better I would’ve taken it.”  That statement bothered me greatly, to the point that I stopped attending that class.  But it also led me to examine my own heart and ask myself why I am a Christian.  In the process, I’ve learned some things about myself and about my relationship with God.

I grew up in a Christian home, my mom took us to Sunday School, church, Sunbeams, Vacation Bible School, and so on.  I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know about the God who created the whole world and the sun, moon and stars.  I always knew that Jesus loved me.  I knew about the cross and the empty tomb. I knew that I wanted to go to heaven, so I asked Jesus into my heart when I was nine years old and was baptized.  All through my growing up years, I was in church.  I attended the Teen Bible Study group and told my friends that they had to accept Jesus if they wanted to go to heaven.  Like the rich young man who asked the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17), my young faith was all about what was necessary on my part to end up in heaven.  Not exactly the type of fertile soil that allows deep roots to grow.

But church and faith took a backseat to work and fun and relationships.  I became less concerned with heaven and more focused on the things of earth.  I married, and then my world came crashing down when my marriage failed.  I went back home to my parents and returned to the church of my childhood.  Only this time, it was different.  Rather than learning Bible stories, I began to learn Bible truth, and I started to see things in Scripture I had never seen before.

As I read the Old Testament story of the Israelites, I saw my own life.  The Israelites were less concerned with knowing the Lord and just wanted to get to the Promised Land.  Like them, I didn’t seek God, I only sought heaven—the final destination of this long journey of life.  And just as they cycled through centuries of falling away from God into bondage and then crying out for rescue, I “did my own thing” until my thing proved unstable and I ran back to church.

What I had was a shaky connection to church, not a relationship with God.  What I had wasn’t faith that withstands the struggles of life and the temptations of the world.  It was “faith” built on sweet Bible stories, but it was not saving faith.

The Israelites wanted to be freed from the power of their enemies, the Philistines, Edomites, Midianites, Amorites, etc.  Even in the New Testament, the Jewish people only wanted to be free of Roman rule.  But they failed to recognize that their enemy wasn’t another nation.  Their enemy, my enemy and your enemy is our own sinful nature.

Like the Israelites, my greatest need was not for God to sweep in and fix the problem of the day.  My greatest need was to recognize that I was a wretch, bound as a slave to sin and helpless to free myself.  In truth, I didn’t even realize that I was in bondage.  I didn’t yearn to be free from slavery to sin because it was just a normal, natural part of my life and the life of most everyone around me.  But God saw me as the slave I was, bound and shackled by the sinful nature of all mankind, and He determined to set me free.

There was only one way—a perfect sacrifice had to take on all my sin and shame and die in my place.  That is when God sent His own Son in the person of Jesus, to die on the cross in my place.  My freedom was bought at the highest possible price – the life of the Son of God.

Still I would not have chosen to receive Jesus’ sacrifice had God not revealed the truth of my bondage—and the truth of His redeeming love.  He moved my heart to believe and receive His gift of salvation.  My faith is no longer in the church—my faith is in Jesus, who is my Lord and my Savior.  And now I am certain that heaven is my forever home.

Biblical scholar Dr. Irwin Lutzer says that true faith is three-fold. “First it involves knowledge, the fact of Jesus’ death for sinners.  Second it means we assent to the truths of salvation; finally, it involves trust, the transferring of all of our confidence to Christ alone.”[1]  We recognize our own need for a Savior, confess that Jesus’ death secured our salvation, and believe that through God’s grace we are forever redeemed and set free.

I am a Christian because God saved me through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.  I have eternal life in heaven because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  I am not bound as a slave to my sins any longer, I am now bound up in the freedom of Christ.  Every day I remember both who I was as a slave to sin, and who I am now, a freed daughter of God.

Can you say the same?  Do you know the freedom that only comes through Jesus Christ?  Do not remain in the chains of sin for one more minute—right now tell God you want to be set free.  The chains will fall and you can walk away as a freed child of God.

Holy Father, thank You for opening my eyes to the truth of my slavery to sin.  Thank You for revealing the redemptive power of Your love through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Thank You for setting me free.  I am forever Your child.

[1] Erwin Lutzer, The Doctrines That Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines That Separate Christians, (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1998), 99.